As the hour ticked toward lunchtime and the window of toddler patience closed, Zuckerman and Conboy said that the most pressing issue right now for Protect South Portland is Global’s application for a new, amended permit. They want to see Global’s facility reclassified as what’s called a major source emitter. That classification would mean that Global would suddenly be subject to more rigorous regulation — including having to apply for a federal Title V permit that requires stricter pollution controls.
They were hoping that the people in the room — and lots of others — would show up at a City Council meeting two nights later to advocate for a state hearing about the amended permit.
“If we could get a big turnout … saying we want monitoring,” Zuckerman said, “maybe we can get it.”
Numbers that never quite add up
The next day I got on the phone with Jane Gilbert, who manages the state’s air licensing unit.
First off, Gilbert made it clear that we’re dealing now in hypotheticals. Global hasn’t actually submitted its amended emissions permit application yet — it’s due by Monday — so we’re going off what she’s assuming it will submit. But based on those assumptions, she said, there’s no reason to think it will suddenly be classified as a “major source” emitter.
The state of Maine says that any facility that emits more than 50 tons a year of VOCs is a major source of emissions. Global is permitted now for 21.9 tons — that’s based on what it theoretically could emit, were its facility running at full tilt. Based on Global’s reporting to the state, it falls short of that limit every year.
Gilbert said the state is counting on the requirements that the EPA included in the consent decree to keep Global from becoming a major source of emissions.
But as she and I discuss each of the requirements of the consent decree it becomes clear: Everything the EPA requires of Global is either (a) already the normal practice of the company or (b) actually allows them to emit more.
The EPA has put limitations on how much product can be moved through Global’s heated tanks — 50 million gallons of bunker fuel and 75 million gallons of asphalt a year. Gilbert wasn’t sure how that compared to its throughput in the past — she didn’t have those numbers handy. It’s not something they usually track.
When I followed up with her colleague, Stacy Knapp, she pulled the data and found that the EPA’s limit doesn’t do much “limiting” at all. What’s being imposed by the EPA is actually about six times higher than the year that Global saw its greatest throughput, 2017, when it moved 14.6 gallons of asphalt and 6.8 million gallons of bunker fuel.
And as I looked through Global’s permit, I realized: The limitations on the number of days the tanks are heated and how many tanks can contain asphalt or bunker fuel are already its normal practice.
As Gilbert and I went through all this, I asked her: If the consent decree doesn’t actually restrict the emissions, what will keep Global from rising above the limit of its permit?
It’s the requirements of the permit itself, she told me, which limit Global to 21.9 tons of VOCs. “That’s what keeps them a minor source — the permit,” she said. In essence, we have to take the company at its word.
A spokeswoman for Global said the company had agreed under the consent decree to take several steps that would reduce the potential emissions from the facility, because of the ways that those changes will limit expansion beyond their current practices.
But then there’s this: Each year Global reports its “actual” emissions to the state — meaning it calculates, based on its throughput, how much the estimated emissions were.
From 2015 to 2017, Knapp told me, it relied on the method used by the EPA that led to the consent decree. In 2017, that resulted in 18.7 tons of VOCs — comfortably below the 21.9 ton permit limit. But when Global recently calculated its 2018 emissions, that number dropped all the way down to 4.81 tons.
How? It adopted a new EPA formula, released last fall.
With all this fuzzy math, it’s hard to have a lot of faith in such an arcane system in which so little actual monitoring is performed by the state and the EPA and so much is left to the company to self-report.
When I hung up the phone, my head felt like it wanted to explode.
Activists to City Council: Ask for a meeting on Global’s license
By 8 p.m. Tuesday, it was the South Portland City Council’s turn to make sense of what was happening. Zuckerman and Conaboy sat with a handful of other Protect South Portland members, including one woman, Mindy Hull, who told me she’s struggled in the past to find a way to make the meetings.
Credit: Sabrina Shankman | Inside Climate News
The City Council’s attorney weighed in and let the council know that while the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is not obligated to hold a public meeting about Global’s amended license, it has said it’s happy to do so. All the City Council has to do is ask for it. The Protect South Portland members’ plan was to ensure it did.
I know Hull because her daughter, Carly, attends MaineLy Childcare with my daughter Ruby. As she stood up and read a statement to the council, I couldn’t help but relate to everything she said. She described happy drives to day care with the windows rolled down, singing songs on the way as they turned toward MaineLy.
“On many, many days after making the turn, especially in better weather, my throat would start to burn. Quickly I would roll up the windows and switch the air circulator to avoid pulling in outside air. The fumes from that area would choke us,” Hull said. “The air smelled like a mix of petroleum and asphalt. We couldn’t sing anymore, and I’d tell Carly to put her scarf or other clothing item over her nose and mouth to filter out the fumes.”
Her message was echoed by the other activists, who added their own requests, like 24/7 fenceline monitoring.
A bald, lean man with a thick black beard stepped to the podium and introduced himself. “Hello my name is Orion Breen, I’m a new employee of Global,” he said, explaining he’ll be helping build relationships in the community. “I’m not a petroleum guy, I’m a people person.”
The name instantly rang a bell. I had wondered why someone named Orion Breen had added me as a Facebook friend a month or so ago. This is a bit of a surprise.
Credit: Sabrina Shankman | Inside Climate News
The meeting carried on.
“Looking at the set of outcomes possible, it doesn’t seem like one of them is, ‘No you can’t get a license, you can’t emit,” Councilor Misha Pride said.
If the state licensing process can’t accomplish that, ”we might have another fight on our hands,” he said, referring to the city’s
earlier battle to keep tar sands oil from being piped through its port. “I’m willing to entertain that.” ‘I’m angry that I wake up … and I smell oil’
It was past 10 p.m. when I got in my frigid car to drive home. As the seat heater slowly started to do its job, I kept playing in my mind a moment from the meeting.
Conaboy, the new Protect South Portland member, spoke to what drives her: anger.
“I think we are angry that the company over many years violated the public trust by emitting far above what they’re permitted to emit,” she said. “I am angry thinking about the fact that after everything we’ve been through I will open my windows in the spring and I will wake up one morning and I will smell fuel in the room where my 3-year- and my 5-year-old are sleeping.”
She’s angry because she doesn’t know what her kids are being exposed to. She’s angry because it feels like those in authority — whether it’s the state, the EPA, or the company — haven’t been 100 percent upfront, and it may be her kid’s health that pays the price.
I get it. I’m angry, too.